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Wu Nien-jen:

Young People Are Behind Every Great Achievement


Young People Are Behind Every Great Achievement


At an age where the edge might have been worn away from his idealism and faith, Wu Nien-jen is putting his "residual value” to work, supporting the group Generation Next.



Young People Are Behind Every Great Achievement

By Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 591 )

"Maybe young people live in the world that we created, but in the future we must live in the one they create."

It is January 15, the eve of Taiwan's presidential election. On this cold, rainy night, Wu Nien-jen appears at a late-afternoon market in Tanzi, on the outskirts of Taichung.

Like making daily rounds among familiar old neighbors, Wu works his way from stall to stall, shaking hands from one end of the market to the other. At one point, a proprietress hands him garlic and radishes, calling out the oft-heard refrain dongsuan (which means "win the election" in Taiwanese, but sounds like "frozen garlic" in Mandarin), while the stall across the aisle, not giving away any ground, loses no time in pulling out a zongzi (sticky rice dumpling), calling out "wrap them all up!" (i.e. sweep the election in a landslide) in another clever play on words often associated with political campaigns. People seemingly come out of the woodwork wherever he goes, asking to pose for pictures and get his autograph, and he graciously agrees to each and every request. As he interacts with the people, the temperature in the market seems to rise a few degrees.

Despite not being a candidate himself, Wu is completely caught up in the scene – all for the sake of his "dream daughter," New Power Party legislative candidate Hung Tzu-yung.

Wu did not stop there, also making trips to Hualien to stump for Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Hsiao Bi-khim, Green-Social Alliance candidate Tseng Po-yu, and Social Democratic Party candidate Lee Yan-jong – members of the new generation with different party affiliations.

Detractors charged that he was whoring himself out, wondering aloud exactly who he was supporting.

"When you get older you see the essence of things. You can tell right away someone's motivations for being in politics," observes the 63-year-old Wu in his characteristic sharp, cutting fashion. Wu adds that the candidates he supports "genuinely care about this place, and understand it with their heart."

Wu visited every one of Taiwan's 309 towns, villages and municipalities in support of the Paperwindmill Theatre, set up the AfterSchool 368 Foundation to care for the education of children in remote areas. And on a morning that saw snowfall all over Taiwan, he could be seen on the streets with director I-Chen Ko making cabbage stew and stir-fried rice noodles for the homeless.

The feisty Wu says he cannot stomach seeing leaders from his generation who are unwilling or unable to listen to the people, thereby relegating disenfranchised groups to the most inconspicuous, overlooked places. He believes that only people who come from the people can listen to the voice of the people, that a changing of the guard is underway, and that the hope for Taiwan lies in today's youths. Faith in the future of the next generation is what keeps him charging ahead.

"Maybe young people live in the world that we created, but in the future we must live in the one they create." Wu repeated these words, originally spoken to his son, in a voiceover for an election campaign video, causing countless people watching at home on their computers to choke up with emotion.

Most people at his age have long lost their idealism and faith. Wu, however, together with old running buddy I-Chen Ko, and Paperwindmill Cultural Foundation CEO Lee Yung-feng – their posse of fervent old Taiwanese men has fewer inhibitions than ever about going ahead and using up their "residual value" in support of a group of young people.

"Young people have their own views; a new force is rising," says an emotional Wu. "I treasure this force."

A new generation is on the horizon in 2016, and they face unprecedented challenges. While he cannot commit himself to complete optimism, the 63-year-old Wu remains full of hope, both concerned for and proud of Taiwan. The following are excerpts from our exclusive interview with the multitalented actor, author, and director:

Commonwealth (CW): Now that the election is over, how do you feel about it looking back?

Wu Nien-jen (Wu): Over the past few decades, we spent too much time on random things, and that goes for political and business figures as well as intellectuals. If everyone were to take what he or she does seriously to the fullest capacity to do the best job, that collective force would be huge.

Any decision-maker whose concerns are focused on the public interests of Taiwan and its people, rather than the selfish interests of their party or group, would do the best work. If everyone in Taiwan acted in such a way, I'm sure Taiwan would move in a good direction – and I've always believed that.

People often say that Taiwan's economy is on the decline, as if they are in despair. For me, I feel that Taiwan has something going for it, and that is that its people power is only growing. The people's passion has been unlocked, and they began to think: Can I contribute my energies to society, and work together with others to get something done? Maybe it's not done in the most logical, polished, or efficient way, but you just go ahead and do it.

I will keep cherishing this popular force, which to me is the most encouraging thing over the past few years in Taiwan.

CW: Now that there has been another changeover in power from party to party, what is your take on Taiwan in 2016?

Wu: 2016 is a new beginning for Taiwan, as the election of Hsiao Bi-khim of the DPP and Hung Tzu-yung of the NPP shows.

Up until this election, (Kuomintang presidential candidate) Eric Chu had more votes in Hualien and Taitung, which (DPP president-elect) Tsai Ing-wen described as "naturally blue." If you've been to Hualien you know what she means; the area has been a KMT bastion for many years. Hsiao Bi-khim has spent a number of years networking on the local level in Hualien, really delving into the area to get a feel for what it needs. Her successful election means that the area is changing.

With no prior background in politics, Hung Tzu-yung became involved upon the situation surrounding the death of her brother, Army corporal Hung Chung-chiu. When a friend asked me, "How can you tell that Hung Tzu-yung is going to make a good legislator in the future?" I answered, "When you were young, how did you know you would end up making a good business person?"

At least she is new, signifying that social fairness and justice are visible and needed. Second, she defeated a seasoned opponent with two or three decades of experience working the local scene.

Standing by Today's Youth

I often say that, you shouldn't bother trying to change the mind of anyone over the age of 45, and especially those over 50 – to them blue is blue and green is green. Hung Tzu-yung's election lets the older generation know that young people have now risen.

We have overlooked our own children, thinking of them as little kids. That's not true! Our children are in their thirties, the younger ones at least in their twenties. They have their own views. These kids got her elected, and that shows that a new force has risen in Taiwan.

Of course, once someone is elected they are on their own, and if they don't do a good job they'll end up taken out by votes in four years and will have to face reality. To me, holding political figures up to rigorous scrutiny is a basic tenet that makes democracy great.

CW: Do you want a revolution? What is it that you want to change?

Wu: I can't say I want a revolution – our abilities are limited to what we can accomplish within a certain scope. Whether other people believe in us, and how much impact we have, that's not really for me to judge.

I-Chen Ko brought Hung Tzu-yung here (referring to his office). First I met her parents, and then Tzu-yung herself. In my estimation, I knew young people would vote for her, while people my age, or those over 50, would have a hard time casting votes for her. I said, let me make a video for you, to have dialogue with people my age. I stated at the beginning of the video that I'm 63 years old, and described what it was like when I was young, so as to remind this group of people what we endured to get here today.

We put it up on the Internet, but the television news turned it into the talk show topic of the day, playing it throughout two programs in a row. Watching the TV at home at past 2 a.m., I was ecstatic seeing how putting it out like that was just like running a TV commercial, or maybe even more effective than a TV spot.

Some people might ask, what do young people know? And I think, 'Come on! Young people have accomplished all the great things in this world.' I mean, which one of the 72 martyrs of the Canton Uprising of 1911 that led to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty was an old person? When people reach a certain age they rely on past experience, assured that theirs is a successful model and reluctant to give it up. But times have really changed.

Remote Area Education

CW: You have been continuously involved in remote area education and after-school guidance. What does this mean to you?

Wu: I came to Taipei to work at the age of 16, having attended night school in both high school and university. All along I believed one thing, namely that if you maintain your yearning for learning you'll stay focused and keep improving throughout your life.

We can see the gap between Taiwan's cities and towns, (in remote areas) most children are educated by their grandparents' generation. But Grandma doesn't understand everything, so no one helps students with their homework, children do not receive praise at school, and they have no sense of accomplishment. This leads to lassitude about learning, especially given our education system's propensity for dividing children into good and bad students, while it forgets to stimulate their interest in learning.

Many problems in Taiwan today, such as crime among youths, stem from schools giving up on people when they're young.

You have to listen to young people's voices; if you don't try to understand them, listen to them, and make friends with them, then you're never going to be able to take care of their most fundamental problems.

Fortunately I know a lot of people, so I do fundraising. Right now I'm acting as director of the AfterSchool 368 Foundation. I studied accounting in college, and I tend towards being steady and conservative. Our thinking is that once we start up classes there is no going back, so if we slow things down, and spend around NT$1 million per class, our initial goal is 100 classes. I'm thinking, 'Wow, 100 classes means NT$100 million!' What if I can't raise that much money? So I have kept my best friends on call, so that if we're unable to raise enough funds, I can calculate how much money I need to get from them.

Work Hard, Treat People Right

CW: Are you happy with the current state of Taiwan?

Wu: I tend to be pessimistic by nature, but hopeful at the same time. When Chen Shui-bian won the presidency back in 2000, I kept thinking, 'Are you ready? Is the DPP really ready?'

Right now I'm worried that the situation in Taiwan is pretty dire, and we face a lot of difficulties. Taiwan is also a strange place, where people seem to think that you have to see a result in just two months. But the higher the expectations the greater the burden, and that goes for the president and premier as well.

CW: Looking ahead at 2016, what do you want to say to Taiwan?

Wu: Take your job seriously, and treat those around you right.

Tsai Ing-wen is about to take office. This is a big deal for the entire Chinese world. Taiwan went ahead and elected its first female president in a mature fashion. That's what really stood out about this election and what strikes me as great. Think about the United States, where Hillary Clinton might not even get elected.

I want to see where Taiwan goes, and how the KMT changes. Because only when there is a strong opposition party can the ruling party be serious about its job.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman